Understanding Rambam's Approach to The Mitzvah of Counting the Omer
by Yitzchak Etshalom
Rambam, in Hilkhot Temidin uMusafin, Chapter 7, states:
22: It is a Mitzvat Aseh to count seven complete weeks from the day of the bringing of the 'Omer, as it says: You shall count for yourselves, from the day after the Shabbat, seven weeks. It is a Mitzvah to count the days along with the weeks, as it says: You shall count fifty days; and we count from the beginning of the day, therefore, he should count at night, from the night of the 16th of Nissan.
23: If he forgot to count at night, he should count during the day. We count standing up; however, if he counted while seated, this is valid.
24: This Mitzvah is incumbent upon every Jew, in every place and at every time; women and slaves are exempt from it.
25: One must recite a B'rakhah every evening: Blessed...Who sanctified us with His Mitzvot and commanded us regarding Sefirat ha'Omer before he counts; if he counted without saying the B'rakhah, he has fulfilled it and he does not go back and say the Berakhah.
Several questions about this passage:
Since the Mitzvah is to count from the bringing of the 'Omer offering, and we have no such offering in our time - most Rishonim feel that the Mitzvah is merely commemorative in our day. This is based on Amemar's statement (Menahot 66a) - Zekher l'Mikdash Hu. Why does Rambam rule that Sefirah is still "in full d'Orayta (Biblical) force" today?
Most of the Rishonim (including the Tur and, subsequently, the Shulhan Arukh) present the laws of Sefirat ha'Omer with the laws of the Seder (or right after them). Why does Rambam list them in Hilhkot T'midin uMusafin instead of at the end of Hilkhot Hametz uMatza? (read through chs. 7-8 there and a few chapters of T'midin uMusafin to understand the themes of each.)
Why is Sefirah ideally said standing up - but is still valid if said while seated? (Some Rishonim quote a Midrash on the word baKamah but Rambam doesn't cite this. Perhaps he has another reason)
SEFIRAT HA'OMER IN THE TORAH
The Mitzvah of Sefirat Ha'Omer is mentioned twice in the Torah.
First, in Vayyikra [Leviticus] 23:15-16:
And from the day after the Shabbat, from the day of your bringing the 'omer hat'nufah (sheaf of the elevation offering), you shall count seven weeks; they shall be temimot (complete/perfect). You shall count until the day after the seventh Shabbat, fifty days; then you shall present an offering of new grain to YHVH.
Then, in Devarim [Deuteronomy] 16:9-10:
You shall count seven weeks; begin to count the seven weeks from the time the sickle is first put to the standing grain. Then you shall keep the festival of weeks for YHVH your God, contributing a freewill offering in proportion to the blessing that you have received from YHVH your God.
At first glance, it would seem that the passage in Devarim is "built" on the command in Vayyikra; however, a careful look reveals several differences:
There is no mention of counting days in the Devarim section; in Vayyikra, the seven weeks is modified/qualified by "fifty days".
The counting in Devarim is not predicated on the bringing of an offering - it is begun at the onset of harvest season; in Vayyikra, it is specifically attached to the bringing of the 'omer hat'nufah. In addition, the mimohorat haShabbat (on the morrow of the Shabbat) requirement is unique to Vayyikra.
The stated goal of counting in Devarim is only to get to the festival of Shavu'ot; in Vayyikra, it is primarily to "present an offering of new grain...".
There is no requirement of temimot (complete/perfect) weeks in the Devarim selection.
There are three possible approaches to these differences:
(a) The components in each selection supplement the information of one complete Mitzvah. Following this approach, the "beginning of the harvest" requirement of Devarim is modified (date-wise) by the "on the morrow of the Shabbat" of Vayyikra; the seven weeks of Devarim are counted by the days mentioned in Vayyikra (7 days are counted to make one week).
(b) There are two independent Mitzvot operating here - counting 50 days, via counting 7 weeks, leading up to a new offering; and counting 7 weeks from the beginning of the harvest to get us to Shavu'ot . Of course, this approach must be tempered as the festival of Shavu'ot is the culmination of both countings. Therefore, even if we are discussing two independent Mitzvot, they operate simultaneously.
(c) There is one Mitzvah with two levels - a counting of weeks via days (which make the weeks "complete") which leads us to the "new offering" component of Shavu'ot, while counting the weeks (alone) which leads us to the festive component of Shavu'ot.(This is a combination of the first two approaches).
COUNTING DAYS AND COUNTING WEEKS
The central sugya dealing with Sefirat ha'Omer is found in the sixth chapter of Menahot (66a). Towards the end of that sugya, the following statement of Abaye is cited: Mitzvah l'mimnei yomei umitzvah l'mimnei sh'vu'ei - "It is a Mitzvah to count days and it is a Mitzvah to count weeks". This statement could be understood in one of two ways - either that within the obligation of counting, there is a demand for counting both days and weeks; or that there are two separate obligations: counting days and counting weeks.
The statement is followed by a record of the students of R. Ashi, who followed Abaye's direction, counting days and weeks; however, the sugya concludes with the statement that Amemar counted days but not weeks because he maintained that Zekher l'Mikdash Hu - counting the 'Omer (in our post-Mikdash time) is [merely] a commemoration to the Beit HaMikdash.
Rashi explains Amemar's position as follows: [He] said that the counting these days is not an obligation, since we have no 'omer, rather it is just a commemoration of the Mikdash, therefore [counting] days is sufficient.
Many Rishonim (see, e.g. Tosafot Menahot 66a s.v. Zekher l'Mikdash, Tosafot Megillah 20b s.v. Kol haLaylah, HaMa'or, end of Pesahim) feel that the Gemara ultimately accepted Amemar's position and, therefore, ruled that Sefirat ha'Omer in a time (like ours) when no Mikdash stands is not in force as a Torahic Mitzvah. We "count the 'omer" in our days as a way of remembering the Mikdash, just as we shake Lulav all seven days and eat the "sandwich" at the Seder. The general understanding is that anything which we do as a Zekher l'Mikdash is Rabbinic in source.
[See R. Perlow's commentary on R. Sa'adiah Ga'on's Sefer haMitzvot, #51, for an engaging discussion about the issue of making a B'rakhah on an action which is a Zekher l'Mikdash].
There is, however, a problem with this "straightforward" understanding of Amemar. If he holds that counting today is merely commemorative (and it is not necessary to read Zekher l'Mikdash Hu at the end of the sugya as Amemar's own words; it may be an interpretation of his ruling), why did he only count days but not weeks? Why not count only weeks - or, better yet, count both as a commemoration?
Although most Rishonim understand that we have one Mitzvah here, Rabbenu Yeruham of Provence suggested an interesting - and unique - interpretation of both the Vayyikra/Devarim divergencies and the sugya in Menahot.
In Netiv 5 (sec. 4) of his "Toldot Adam v'Havvah", Rabbenu Yeruham suggests that there are two separate Mitzvot (the second approach, above):
a) to count 50 days in order to get to Shavu'ot - and this Mitzvah is independent of the offering of the 'Omer and is, therefore, in full force today;
b) to count seven weeks from the offering of the 'Omer - which is no longer applicable today.
He maintains (at least, according to R. Perlow's emendation of the text) that during the times of the Mikdash, there were not only two simultaneous countings - there were two separate B'rakhot said, one for each counting.
R. Yeruham's approach solves one problem - while raising another. It explains Amemar's ruling and reasoning: Amemar counted only days (the perennial obligation) and not weeks (the Mikdash-only obligation) - reasoning that [the counting of the weeks] is a Zekher l'Mikdash. Following this approach, we understand why Amemar specifically counted the days and not the weeks.
On the other hand, the simplest dissection of the Vayyikra/Devarim divergencies would lead us to the opposite conclusion - that the counting of days is Mikdash-dependent, as it is only mentioned in the context of the offering; whereas the counting of weeks (Devarim) would be in full force today, as it does have an independent "Parashah" in Devarim, without mention of an offering.
[for another approach to Sefirat ha'Omer as a Mitzvah from the Torah in our day, see Yere'im #261. Full treatment of his understanding is beyond the scope of this shiur.]
Rambam maintains that the Mitzvah of Sefirat ha'Omer is still a Torahic obligation today. It would be most convenient if we could explain his approach on the model of R. Yeruham - except that he anticipates this theory and deflates it in his Sefer haMitzvot (Aseh #161). He suggests that someone might be misled by Abaye's statement "It is a Mitzvah to count the days and it is a Mitzvah to count the weeks" into thinking that there are actually two separate Mitzvot - and he demonstrates the impossibility of this theory, since, if it were so, we would recite two B'rakhot - 'al S'firat ha'Omer and 'al S'firat Sh'vu'ei ha'Omer - which is not done.
Not only does Rambam defeat the "two Mitzvot" approach - he also introduces both components (days/weeks) as primary to the counting. In Sefer haMitzvot (ibid) he introduces the Mitzvah as "To count, from the cutting of the 'Omer, 49 days..." - yet, in our Halakhah, he states: "It is a Mitzvat Aseh to count seven complete weeks...". In other words, since he freely interchanges the days and the weeks, and following his own explanation, it is clear that Rambam sees the days and weeks as pieces of one Mitzvah - which should, by all rights, not be in force without the 'Omer offering. We need to look beyond R. Yeruham's "two Mitzvot" approach, based on the Vayyikra/Devarim divergencies, to explain Rambam's approach.
We are accustomed to thinking of all Mitzvot in bifurcated categories - Aseh (commission) vs. Lo Ta'aseh (omission); Bein 'Adam l'Havero (interpersonal) vs. Bein Adam laMakom (between people and God); Mitzvah haT'luyah ba'Aretz (dependent on land, and, therefore, only in force in Eretz Yisra'el) vs. Mitzvah she'Einah T'luyah ba'Aretz (Mitzvah which is independent of Land) and so on.
One of the bifurcations which is less well-known but is highly significant is, to use the Hinukh's stylings: Noheg b'Khol Z'man (operative at all times) vs. Noheg biZ'man (OR biF'nei) haBayit (operative only in the time - or the presence - of the Mikdash). (The Gemara's terms are usually biZ'man sheBeit haMikdash Kayyam and biZ'man she'Ein Beit haMikdash Kayyam - see, e.g. Berakhot 61b). We are accustomed to thinking of anything which is Mikdash-oriented as being Mikdash-dependent; i.e. any Mitzvah which is built around the Mikdash as being non-operative (except as a commemoration) when the Beit haMikdash isn't standing.
There are, however, some Halakhot which are oriented towards the Mikdash which are yet in full force. For instance, the Torah commands us to "Revere My Mikdash" (Vayyikra 19:30,26:2). Rambam (MT Beit haBechira 7:1-6) presents the Halakhot of Mora Mikdash, and then states (ibid 7:7) that these Halakhot apply today, even though the Mikdash is in ruins. Even RABD, who challenges Rambam's ruling that the sanctity of the Mikdash continues to hold sway (ibid 6:14-16), is silent here - indicating that he concedes that we must maintain fear for the place even today.
The upshot is that there are some Halakhot which derive from the Mikdash - but which are operative even without a standing, functioning Mikdash.
MIKDASH-ORIENTED VS. MIKDASH-DEPENDENT
Beyond those Halakhot which have to do with the sanctity of the Mikdash - and which continue to apply today as a reflection of the eternal Kedushah of that place - there is also at least one Mitzvah which is fundamentally rooted in Mikdash-worship - yet is equally operative whether or not a Mikdash is standing.
In his Sefer haMitzvot (Mitzvat Aseh #5, at the end), Rambam quotes the Sifri on the verse: "...and you shall worship Him..." (Devarim 13:5). The Sifri explains: 'avodu b'Torato, 'avodu b'Mikdasho - "worship Him through [the study of] His Torah, worship Him in (or "via") His Mikdash. Rambam explains that this is an allusion to the command of daily Tefillah - i.e. "direct yourself towards it to pray there".
There are many Halakhot of Tefillah which seem to tie it in to Mikdash-worship (e.g. the direction we face, hand-washing before) - and we will discuss this in detail in the Introductory shiur to Hilkhot Tefillah. In any case, we find that Tefillah is a Mitzvah which is "Mikdash-oriented", even though it isn't "Mikdash-dependent".
SEFIRAT HA'OMER - "FROM THE DAY OF BRINGING"
When we look back at the Parashah in Vayyikra where Sefirat ha'Omer is commanded, we note that we are not commanded to count from the act of bringing the 'Omer, rather from the DAY of bringing it. In other words, we could understand the verse as telling us WHEN the Mitzvah begins ("'Omer bringing-day"), without it making the counting contingent on the offering. In this way, we associate Sefirat ha'Omer with the Mikdash (as it reckons from the date of an offering in the Mikdash - and counts to the day of another offering) - but even if we don't bring the offering, we still count. One possible proof for this understanding is the fact that we begin counting prior to the offering - we begin counting at the beginning of the second night of Pesach, yet the offering was only brought the next day.
In this way, we can understand Sefirat ha'Omer as being Mikdash-oriented, without it being Mikdash-dependent.
This is why Rambam considers the Mitzvah as d'Orayta (of Torahic force) in our day, even though we have no Mikdash and no 'Omer offering, and why he presents these Halakhot in T'midin uMusafin: It is indeed an 'Avodah (worship-act) which is bound up with the Mikdash and is part of the system of daily and calendar-based offerings, the subject of Hilkhot T'midin uMusafin.
One question left: Why do we need to stand, yet if we count the 'Omer while seated, it is valid. Curiously, the same Halakhah applies to Tefillah (see MT Tefillah 5:1-2) - ideally, it is said while standing; yet, if said while seated, it is valid. (In some cases, it is even preferable to pray while seated, but that will have to wait until we get to that section of MT).
"STANDING AND SERVING"
The Mishnah in Zevahim (2:1) records that 'Avodah done in the Mikdash while seated is invalid - and invalidates the offering. The Gemara (23b) gives the source for this Halakhah, which is based on two occurences of the verb "stand" in this section of Devarim:
For YHVH your God has chosen Levi out of all your tribes, TO STAND AND SERVE in the name of YHVH, him and his sons for all time. If a Levite leaves any of your towns, from wherever he has been residing in Israel, and comes to the place that YHVH will choose and he may come whenever he wishes, then he may serve in the name of YHVH his God, like all his fellow-levites WHO STAND TO SERVE THERE before YHVH. (Devarim 18:5-7).
The Gemara explains:
How do we know that "sitting" [invalidates an Avodah]?Š The Rabbis taught: "To stand and serve" - Mitzvah (=ideal); when [the Torah] says "Who stand [to serve there]", Scripture repeated it to invalidate.
In other words, the Torah first mentioned that Levi'im stand while performing worship - that introduces "standing" as an ideal form of worship. The Torah then repeated "standing", in order to demonstrate that it isn't just an ideal form of worship - it is integral to worship and, without it, the worship is invalid.
If we look carefully at the two verses, we see a difference between the contexts: In the first verse, all that is mentioned is "serving" (l'sharet = 'avodah); whereas the second mention (the one that invalidates a seated 'Avodah) is "standing THERE to serve."
I would like to propose that there are two functions of standing while performing an 'Avodah in the Mikdash:
1) Reverence for God - the object of this worship and
2) Reverence for the sanctity of the Mikdash.
Whereas both components coalesce while performing an 'Avodah in the Mikdash, when performing an 'Avodah that is focussed on the Mikdash but performed outside, only the first piece is relevant. Therefore, any Mikdash-oriented (but not Mikdash-dependent) 'Avodah will only have the force of the first verse - which leaves us with an ideal Mitzvah of standing, but validity if done while seated. Hence, Rambam rules that Sefirat ha'Omer, like Tefillah, is ideally done while standing ("to stand and serve") but, if done while seated, is valid (due to a lack of "who stand THERE" - it isn't necessarily performed "there".)
Note that at the end of Tefillah, we say Yehi Ratzon...sheYibaneh Beit haMikdash... ("May it be Your will...that the Beit Mikdash should be built..."). According to this presentation, this is because Tefillah is a type of 'Avodat haMikdash. There is only one other Mitzvah where we add a similar prayer - after counting the 'Omer, we say Harahaman hu yah'zir lanu et 'avodat beit haMikdash lim'komah... ("May the Compassionate One restore the worship of the Beit haMikdash to its place...")!
Some Rishonim cite a Midrash on the word bakamah - ("stalk" - which sound like b'komah - while standing) as support for the Halakhah of standing for Sefirat ha'Omer. While there is no indication that Rambam was aware of this Midrash (which is not found in any of our Midrashic texts), it was popularly quoted by many Rishonim and Aharonim. See To'afot Re'em (commentary on the Sefer Y're'im), #261 n. 9 for some early sources for this Midrash.